BY PETER JONES
While many of his 13-year-old contemporaries were lost in endless games of Minecraft, Jack Andraka was working on the cure for cancer—or at least, early detection thereof.
To make a hyper-technical story short, Andraka daydreamed and the results were noteworthy—a potentially new type of sensor for early-stage pancreatic-cancer screening.
Flash forward six years: The award-winning teenager holds an international patent on his technique as he makes his pitch to deep-pocketed biotech companies that could potentially bankroll his submission to the Food and Drug Administration.
“Tragically, as a broke college student, I don’t have several million dollars to run a clinical trial,” the electrical engineering and chemistry major said.
Meanwhile, the 19-year-old wunderkind has become the stuff of nonfiction Hollywood with everyone from the BBC to The Colbert Report profiling the young scientist.
Jack Andraka was 13 when the death of a family friend prompted him to find an early-detection method for pancreatic cancer. He will speak this weekend in a benefit for Wings of Hope.Photo courtesy of Wings of Hope
In 2013, he was the subject of You Don’t Know Jack, a documentary by Morgan Spurlock. Time has called him one of 30 people under 30 who are changing the world. His multiple awards include the 2012 Smithsonian American Ingenuity Youth Achievement Award and the 2014 Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge.
“I was just some normal kid from the Baltimore suburbs and all of a sudden now I’m on national news. It was very odd, but also super cool,” the Stanford University freshman said.
Last year, he published Breakthrough, a memoir on his scientific and personal life.
Andraka will speak Saturday, June 18, at Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora in a benefit for Wings of Hope, a nonprofit founded by former Castle Pines Mayor Maureen Shul after losing two family members to pancreatic cancer.
Jack Andraka explains his research to President Obama.Photo courtesy of Harper Publishing
The Villager recently asked the young researcher a few questions.
Villager: How did this journey begin for you?
Andraka: A close family friend passed from pancreatic cancer when I was about 13 years old. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was at the time so it came as a bit of a shock. One day he was very healthy and within three months he was dead. When I did research, I found out that 85 percent of all pancreatic cancers are diagnosed late and there’s about a 2 percent chance of survival. All of our current methods are very expensive, they’re really outdated and they don’t have the best sensitivity at detecting the cancer—and they often detect it when it’s far too late. So I was determined to go out and change the way we detect pancreatic cancer.
Villager: What made you think at age 13 you could do that?
Andraka: I don’t know. Nobody had told me that I couldn’t. I’d done previous science fairs, so I thought this could be a new type of scientific inquiry for me.
Villager: How does one sit down and begin to figure out a problem like this?
Andraka: I just went on Google and Wikipedia and saw a bunch of interesting articles. I found out that in our current method, essentially what we’re doing is we’re inspecting these proteins that are found in your bloodstream. The problem is there is very low concentration and there’s tons of other proteins that can interfere with the detection of that one protein. So what I did is I went through a database of over 8,000 proteins looking for the perfect one. Eventually, I found one on the 4,000th try. I was just sitting in my biology class one day, thinking of how am I going to check this protein. I was also reading this article about these long thin nanotubes of carbon—they’re really small, but they have these really amazing properties. They’re kind of like the superheroes of material science. I was thinking I can combine these tubes with a type of molecule that is kind of like a lock and key and will only react to one specific protein—but also change the way electricity flows through it to indicate if you have pancreatic cancer.
Villager: And you understood all that at 13?
Andraka: Yeah, yeah.
Villager: Nobody had thought of this before?
Andraka: Not really, not for cancer or anything like that. I suppose I was in the right place at the right time. I was thinking about pancreatic cancer. I know about this marker and I was reading about nanotubes all at the same time and it sort of clicked. That’s really what science is—being in the right place at the right time.
Villager: What kind of reactions did you get from medical experts?
Andraka: My bio teacher was like, “No way, you can’t do this.” I talked to 200 professors to get into a lab and 199 of them told me no. They’d say there were child-labor laws preventing a 13-year-old from doing cancer research. But eventually, I got one response from Dr. Anirban Maitra from Johns Hopkins University. I emailed him this gigantic 30 pages telling each and every aspect of my procedure. I went to a big interview. It was like 28 people in this tiny, tiny room and they interrogated me for like two hours. I guess I impressed them enough to let me work in their lab. I sucked at it at first. I actually sneezed in my cell culture once. But after seven months of screwing up everything, I finally ended up with a test that cost 3 cents and took five minutes to run. It had over 90 percent accuracy, way beyond what I thought it was going to do. It’s just like a diabetic test.
Villager: Is it a continuing battle for you to be taken seriously in the science world, even at your advanced age of 19?
Andraka: Scientists are typically very accepting, as long as you have a good idea.
Villager: Do you ever wonder how you’ll be able to top this at, say, age 30 or 40?
Andraka: I have no clue and that’s what makes it so exciting.
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